Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The Roots of Divergence? Some Comments on Japan in the ‘Axial Age’, 1750–1850*


Much of the recent work on the economic and social history of Tokugawa Japan (1600–1867) has been driven by a desire to identify what T.C. Smith has called ‘native sources ofJapanese industrialisation’. From the Marxist-influenced historians in the 1920s who sought to explain the pre-industrial roots of the structure of production in interwar Japan, through to contem-poraryJapanese historians' studies of the pattern of Japanese development, a major part of the agenda has been to identify how Japan had got to where it was, in other words, what was the secret of its twentieth century successes and weaknesses. It is not possible to explore the situation of Japan's economy in the century 1750–1850 without benefit of this hindsight, without being aware that while Japan's situation may have been in many ways analogous to that of China and Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, its economic fortunes were by the latter part of the nineteenth century experiencing their own ‘great divergence’ from those of China, India and the other countries of Asia and the near East. To search for the antecedents of this divergence is for economic historians of Japan a parallel exercise o t any search for the sources of the European ‘miracle’. While a focus on the period 1750–1850 as an era of European/Asian divergence means, therefore, that we must highlight the situation inJapan during that century, it must also be accepted that in the case of Japan any comparison with other countries or regions may also suggest the causes of Japan's own divergence some fifty to a hundred years later.

Hide All


1 See Bix H., Peasant Protest in Japan 1590–1884 (New Haven 1986); Vlastos S., Peasant Protests and Uprisings in Tokugawa Japan (Berkeley 1986); Walthall A., Peasant Uprisings in Japan (Chicago 1991).

2 Pratt E.A., Japan's Proto-industrial Elite: The Economic Foundations of the Gono (Cambridge MA, 1999). Pratt's work includes consideration of the role of the national and local authorities in the growth of proto-industrial activities.

3 Examples of such cases can be found in Takeuchi J., Abe T. and Sawai M. eds, Kindai Nihon ni okeru Kigyoka no Shokeifu (Osaka 1996).

4 Pratt, Japan's Proto-industrial Elite, 23.

5 Smith T.C., Nakahara: Family Farming and Population in aJapanese Village, 1717–1830 (Stanford 1977);Hanley S. and Yamamura K., Economic and Demographic Change in Preindustrial Japan 1600–1868 (Princeton 1977);Hayami A., ‘Population Changes’ in: Jansen M. and Rozman G. eds, Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji (Princeton 1986).

6 The Tenpo crisis is discussed in Bolitho H., ‘The Tempo Crisis’ in: Jansen M. ed., Cambridge History of Japan V (Cambridge 1989).

7 This disparity in economic fortunes dated back at least to the early Tokugawa period, but was sustained. Yamamura focuses on the division of wealth between the north/east and south/west in his article ‘Toward a Reexamination of the Economic History of Tokugawa Japan, 1600–1867’, Journal of Economic History 33 (09 1973).

8 Application of the term ‘proto-industrialisation’ to Japan has been much discussed, and what was occurring in parts of Japan was not identical to the European experience. The term is used here to denote the development of rural commercialisation and manufacturing, much of it based on peasant by-employment.

9 Hauser W., Economic Institutional Change in Tokugawa Japan: Osaka and the Kinai Cotton Trade (Cambridge 1974) 173.

10 Nakamura S., ‘Development of Rural Industry’ in: Nakane C. and Oishi S. eds, Tokugawa Japan (Tokyo 1990). The shift is also discussed in Miyamoto M. and Hirano T., ‘Shogyo’ in: Nishikawa S. et al. eds, Nihon Keizai no 200 Nen (Tokyo 1996). The nature of rural handicraft development can be fruitfully considered in the context of Wong's R. Bin China/Europe comparison (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of the European Experience (Ithaca, NY 1997)).

11 The prominence of Osaka in the first half of the Tokugawa period is discussed in McClain J. and Wakita O. eds, Osaka, the Merchant Capital of Early Modern Japan (Ithaca, NY 1999).

12 The significance of interaction between different regions in the context of Tokugawa development, as shown through price trends, is discussed in Harada T. and Miyamoto M. eds, Rekishi no naka no Bukka — Zenkogyo Shakai no Bukka to Keizai Hatten (Tokyo 1985) Chapter 3, pp. 69105 focuses on the mid-Tokugawa period (eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries).

13 Hanley S., Everyday Things in Tokugawajapan: The Hidden legacy ofMaterial Culture (Berkeley 1997). See also Hanley's earlier article ‘A High Standard of Living in Nineteent h Century Japan: Fact or Fiction?’, Journal of Economic History 43 (09 1983).

14 See e.g. Nagano H., Bakuhansei Kokka no Keizai Kozo (Tokyo 1987), which focuses on Mito domain.

15 Chapter 7 of Sumiya M. and Taira K. eds, An Outline of Japanese Economic History 1603–1940 (Tokyo 1979) discusses the concept of ‘manufactory’ or ‘manufacture’, and its application in a number of works on Japan's pre-modern industry.

16 Frank Andre Gunder, Re–Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley 1998).

17 See Nishikawa N., ‘Kaikei Soshiki to Hakki Giho’ in: Yasuoka S. and Amano M. eds, Kinseiteki Keiei no Hatten I of Iwanami Nihon Keiei Shi (Tokyo 1995).

18 Technology in general, including these networks, is discussed by Morris-Suzuki Tessa in The Technological Transformation ofJapan (Cambridge 1994), an d networks also figure in K. Moriya, ‘Urban Networks an d Information Networks’ in: C. Nakane and S. Oishi, Tokugawa Japan. Vaporis C. (Breaking Barriers, Travel and the Stale in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge, MA 1994)) looks at the spread of travel.

19 Diamond Jared, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (London 1997).

20 Totman C., The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Pre-industrialJapan (Berkeley 1989).

21 Pomeranz Kenneth, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton 2000).

22 Dutch learning is discussed in Hirakawa S., ‘Japan's Turn to the West’ in: Jansen ed., Cambridge History ofJapan V.

23 Tsunoyama S., ‘Sino-Japanese Trade and Japanese Industrialisation’ in: Latham A. and Kawakatsu H. eds, Japanese Industrialisation and the Asian Economy (London 1994).

24 Smith T.C., ‘Pre-modern Growth: Japan and the West’, Past and Present (08 1973) reprinted in idem, Native Sources ofJapanese Industrialisation (Berkeley 1988).

25 Hayami A., ‘Kinsei Nihon n o Keizai Hatten to “Industrious Revolution”’ in: Hayami A., Saito O. and Sugiyama S. eds, Tokugawa Shakai kara no Tenbo: Hatten, Kozo, Kokusai Kankei (Tokyo 1989).

26 Crawcour and others argue that the significance of Tokugawa developments has to be understood in relation to the transitional period 1868–1914, during which the ‘traditional’ economy continued to develop and comprised the major part of all economic activity.

27 Moulder F., Japan, China and the Modern World Economy (Cambridge 1977).

28 Jansen M.B., ‘Japan in the Early Nineteenth Century’ in: Jansen ed., Cambridge History of Japan, 111.

29 Howell D., Capitalism from Within: Economy, Society and the State in a Japanese Fishery (Berkeley 1995).

* The earlier draft of this paper was presented at the workshop on the European Miracle at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies, Wassenaar, in October 2000. I am grateful to Itinerario for the invitation to the workshop, and to participants for their constructive comments and informed discussion.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0165-1153
  • EISSN: 2041-2827
  • URL: /core/journals/itinerario
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 2 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 70 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.